Banks and other players in trade finance have spent the past few years willing the transformation of the sector through the introduction of blockchain technology, with financial institutions even clubbing together to form consortia, all in the hope that they can develop a platform that saves them time and boosts profits. But which are the main consortia and have they made substantive progress? Felix Thompson reports.
The trade finance space has seen a proliferation of blockchain consortia with banks pouring not just money but personnel into platforms, in a bid to make trade finance processes easier, faster and more transparent.
While some initiatives have fallen by the wayside, a handful of consortia: komgo, we.trade, Marco Polo and Contour have seemingly stuck the landing and moved – or have definitive plans to move – beyond the proof of concept and pilot stages.
Two of these platforms have been live for over a year now, with commodity specialist komgo having released four different products for use in real-world transactions and seen over 20,000 letters of credit (LCs)/standby LCs issued on its platform to date.
we.trade, which is aiming to help European companies manage, track and protect their open account trade transactions, currently has 17 banks onboarded and has seen hundreds of transactions carried out on the platform since going commercially live in January 2019.
Meanwhile Contour and Marco Polo say they will also take the plunge and move into commercial production this year.
Marco Polo, a blockchain platform for open account trade finance, says it expects to go fully live in Q2 2020 – after this publication goes to press – and will have three modules readily available for use in transactions.
Having been initially slated to go into production in early 2019, the platform has faced delays in getting off the ground, but CEO Robert Barnes told GTR in January that it has “over 30 banks and transactions ready to start going live in Q2. Some may go a little bit before that.”
The Contour platform, which previously went by the moniker Voltron, also says it’s not far off and that it will move into full commercial production later this year.
Blockchain tech giant R3 and seven of the platform’s eight founding bank members took the decision to change its name and establish the platform as an independent legal entity in January, following the likes of we.trade and komgo in creating independent companies to run their platforms.
Contour had long focused on one mission in particular, the need to digitalise the letter of credit process, but in March one of the platform’s founding members – Standard Chartered – revealed plans to launch smart guarantees on the platform as well.
While it was tipped to get going towards the end of 2019, Contour’s CEO Carl Wegner told GTR it now expects to have its full production launch in the second half of 2020. According to Wegner, Contour “will be going into beta, which means that we won’t do any more one-off pilots because we know the solution works and it works well, and customers have been asking us to do more transactions”.
While other consortia are also taking steps towards commercialisation, with, for example, Hong Kong-based eTradeConnect having carried out two proofs of concepts towards the end of last year, and UAE Trade Connect announcing that it expects to go live in the coming quarter, these four are the consortia-backed platforms that – based on analysis of our website data – are of particular interest to GTR readers.
As banks deliberate over which platforms to back, trade finance executives are also keeping an eye on the technology battle happening below the surface.
In late 2018, GTR reported on the two-horse race taking place between R3 and Hyperledger to become the network of choice within trade finance. The two technologies were used for the majority of proofs of concept and pilots carried out that year, and led the pack ahead of the likes of Ethereum and Stellar.
To date, the picture remains relatively unchanged, with we.trade using Hyperledger Fabric, while both Marco Polo and Contour are built on R3’s Corda network. However, komgo’s use of Quorum – an enterprise-focused version of Ethereum – highlights that it’s not just a shootout between R3 and Hyperledger.
As such, interoperability remains a topical and much debated issue within trade finance, as corporates and banks continue to voice concerns about investing in certain platforms and technologies, only to find out that they are not the industry standard.
Speaking at a GTR roundtable held at the end of last year, Tor Stian Kjøllesdal, vice-president of the internal treasury at Norwegian energy company and field operator Equinor, highlighted the difficulties that companies face when it comes to deciding where to invest: “There are a lot of options as well where you have a lot of different platforms, networks and solutions depending on how you connect to your own systems. So, that is a challenge. When you do some technology investments, it comes with a cost, and you need to identify the business cases for that specific component. Particularly for us, we find it difficult to really know which network or technology is worthwhile investing in.”
While komgo, we.trade and Contour may all have started out life as consortia, all three have moved away from that initial model and now function as separate legal entities.
we.trade and komgo made the move to create independent companies and appoint CEOs to run them in 2018, with founding members generally taking on the role as shareholders. Contour took a similar step in the past few months.
Parm Sangha, global blockchain leader for trade and trade finance at IBM, the tech company that helped develop we.trade, says that when creating a blockchain-enabled platform, it’s necessary to evolve from the initial memorandum of understanding approach to attract new users.
He tells GTR: “In the trade finance market for example, banks prefer to connect to a neutral entity and not join another bank’s platform. Otherwise it introduces a perception of bias. And if you get bias, then you’re going to hit an asymmetrical data problem, which is a case of, ‘I want to share data with you, you want to share data with me, we know it’s good for both of us because it gives us good value, but how do I know you’re not going to derive more value from it than me?’”
He adds: “Then people don’t participate and the notion of ‘team sport’ is eroded. We’ve seen several platforms being built where companies do not necessarily join because the underlying governance of the platform and its neutrality gets questioned.”
Speaking to GTR after Contour took the plunge and became a standalone legal entity, its CEO Wegner said: “When I look back at what has been achieved over the past 18 months, the collaboration that has gone on among banks that are normally competitors has been amazing.” Yet, he added, that there had been challenges until that point. “We were not able to have strong commercial discussions until we had an entity.”
Marco Polo, on the other hand, says that while it hasn’t set up as an independent legal entity, it has moved away from its initial consortium approach of TradeIX, R3 and a collection of banks leading the platform.
Membership and adoption rates
Lisa Robins, head of global transaction banking at Standard Chartered, told GTR at Sibos last year that the big question about consortia is how fast membership and adoption rates will be. “There are so many different options out in the market that it can be overwhelming. And knowing who the winners and the losers will be is even more challenging.”
The two platforms that have gone live – komgo and we.trade – state that adoption rates are growing, with both saying that they have plans to expand and bring their products to banks and companies in new regions, such as Asia.
But there are sceptics in the banking world who don’t believe blockchain platforms are truly scalable.
Speaking at GTR’s annual Asia roundtable last year, Wells Fargo’s head of trade for Asia Pacific Kai Fehr said: “I don’t think that distributed ledger technology actually works in trade for the foreseeable future. I don’t think this will actually work in my professional lifetime – simply because of the complexity of the global supply chains. I hope that I am wrong.”
He added: “The issue is that even if the technology is getting ready and we all here in the room are eventually on the same common platform, the regulators in emerging markets are not. You not only need the banks, the importer and exporter on the e-platform, you need all parties of an ever-changing global supply chain signed up. That is a Herculean task and will take much more time than people in my view anticipate.”
- Members: 17 banks in 16 countries, expects to go live with 3 more banks in Czech Republic by end of Q2
- Tech: Hyperledger Fabric
- Products: 4 products, including: auto-settlement; bank payment undertaking; bank payment undertaking financing; invoice financing
- Number of transactions: “The we.trade platform has carried out many hundreds of live commercial transactions,” it says.
- Full commercial launch date: Went commercially live in January 2019
- Business model: The business model is based upon a yearly licence fee paid by member banks, plus a per transaction fee.
- Legal setup: we.trade Innovation DAC is a standalone legal entity, based in Dublin, Ireland, with shareholding by 12 European banks. It’s led by a Dublin-based management team, headed up by CEO Ciaran McGowan.
- Comment: “We are currently expanding our capabilities by opening the platform to other service providers, such as logistics service providers and credit insurance service providers to provide value added services to trading organisations. Hence – in the same way as when an individual purchases an airline ticket, they may add insurance and car hire – when a business creates a trade on we.trade, between a buyer and seller, each party may add trade financing, insurance and logistics services.”
- Members: 12 banks; 100+ corporates; 35+ developers
- Tech: Ethereum (Quorum)
- Products: 8 products, including: know your customer (KYC); electronic standby letter of credit (eSBLC); treasury; cover and discounting; track; letter of credit/standby letter of credit/guarantees; goods; doc collection
- Number of transactions: More than 20,000 LCs/SBLCs issued to date. Over 1,000 users send more than 3,000 messages per month.
- Full commercial launch date: December 2018
- Business model: A tiered subscription service based on the number of users and number of legal entities.
- Legal setup: komgo is an independent entity whose board includes share holders. It was incorporated in Switzerland in August 2018.
- Comment: “In 2020 the focus will be on rapid commercialisation of the products, and we’ve established a dedicated sales team to drive adoption and usage. Look out for expansion outside Europe, specifically Asia, the US, CIS and the Middle East.”
- Members: Over 30 banks and corporates on the network, as well as partners like Mastercard, Accenture, Pole Star Space Applications, Microsoft and R3.
- Tech: R3’s Corda network
- Products: 3 products, including: payment commitment; receivable discount; payables finance
- Number of pilots/PoCs: In 2019, the banks on the Marco Polo Network completed numerous live pilots with their corporate customers such as MAN, Daimler, Voith and Dürr for the payment commitment solution.
- Full commercial launch date: Plans to go fully live with all 3 modules in Q2 2020
- Business model: TradeIX has two roles, one as the application software developer and the other as Business Network Operator (BNO) of the Marco Polo Network. It licenses its software and applications to the participants of the Marco Polo Network and charges fees for the transactions executed on the network.
- Comment: “The Marco Polo Network is open for any party that is engaged in global trade, including: buyers and sellers irrespective of size, geography or industry; banks and non-bank funders; third-party service and data providers.”
- Members: Seven of the eight founding bank members of Voltron: Bangkok Bank, BNP Paribas, CTBC, HSBC, ING, Standard Chartered and SEB; as well as Citi which joined in February; Bain & Company, which has played a consultancy role in Voltron since its inception; and Hong Kong-based developer CryptoBLK. NatWest, the eighth founding bank member, has not invested in the new company.
- Tech: R3’s Corda Enterprise blockchain technology
- Products: Letter of credit
- Number of pilots: Carried out 14 pilots while under former moniker, Voltron
- Full commercial launch date: Second half of 2020
- Business model: As Contour moves into full operation, it will offer a range of pricing models depending on the module and services used by banks and corporates.
- Legal setup: Contour has incorporated a legal entity in Singapore. This entity is set-up as such that members of the network have the ability to direct the company and ensure its and its members interests remain aligned.
- Comment: “Everyone knows that letters of credit are the most complex product. Once we have solved this and built the network, we’ll then move on to other products that are requested by our members.”
*All information correct as of March 25, 2020